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Baker and DeLeo should take the national stage on guns

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

I’m not one who thinks that Governor Charlie Baker needs to be up on his hind legs protesting every single objectionable thing that Donald Trump says or does. That, after all, would be a full-time job.

That said, there is a matter where Baker should take a more prominent national role: gun laws. Massachusetts, after all, has some of the strongest laws in the country, and the lowest rate of gun deaths.

And what better person for Baker to step out nationally with than House Speaker Robert DeLeo, the man largely responsible for the most recent comprehensive overhaul of those laws? After the Sandy Hook gun massacre of 2012, DeLeo vowed to do whatever he could to prevent similar carnage here. That led to a long, difficult, sometimes lonely effort to rework our statutes.


“He took a lot of heat, but he really came through,” said John Rosenthal, president of Stop Handgun Violence. That effort, which tightened the state’s already tough laws, was signed by Governor Deval Patrick in 2014.

Some of the basics of current state law: Assault-style weapons and Saturday-night specials are banned. All gun show sales are subject to federal background checks. To purchase a gun, someone must first apply to the local police chief for a license; even if an applicant has passed a federal background check, the chief can deny a license if, based on reliable information, he or she deems the applicant a risk to public safety (or to himself). Chiefs have long had discretion to deny when it comes to pistol or large-capacity-rifle licenses. However, the DeLeo-led rewrite expanded their denial discretion when it comes to lower-capacity rifles and shotguns, while clarifying the reasons for which someone can be rejected. A chief’s decision is appealable in court.


Having that kind of discretion in the process is crucial. For all the current conservative talk about keeping weapons out of the hands of troubled individuals like Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, most mass shooters actually pass federal background checks. That’s because, as far as mental illness is concerned, a person must have been adjudicated mentally ill or involuntarily committed for mental health treatment to fail.

President Trump unwittingly underscored the current conundrum during Wednesday’s televised discussion with lawmakers when he asserted that law enforcement should seize guns from people like Cruz first and worry about due process later.

In real life, there are several possible remedies. You can give law-enforcement officials discretion to prevent a problematic person from buying a gun in the first place. You can strengthen federal law by adding more reasons a person can fail a background check (and extend those checks to all private sales). Or you can establish a legal process for confiscating weapons from such owners. The first method has certainly proved itself here.

Imagine the bipartisan duo of Baker and DeLeo highlighting this state’s success nationally, perhaps with a presentation at a prominent think tank and some TV appearances. Baker, a moderate Republican, could help dispel the NRA’s fearmongering that gun safety efforts are actually part of a sinister socialist plot to obliterate individual liberties.

“Having a guy like him would be really helpful,” DeLeo said of Baker, adding that the best plan would probably be “to take a trip to Washington and let them hear what has gone on here in Massachusetts.”


And as for Baker? Asked about the idea, his office released a statement praising DeLeo’s efforts, saying the state’s gun laws work, and noting that Baker and Lieutenant Governor Polito “are always open to continuing to work with the speaker on important issues such as gun control and public safety.”

Charles? Charles? Charles? Are you in there somewhere?

Damn. I fear the caution constabulary has put the governor in politically protective confinement.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.